When talking about branding, many financial institutions focus primarily on the cultural aspects of consumer interaction. For example, exactly what to communicate to consumers, when to communicate it and with which brand-centric nuance.
While this angle is important, financial institutions must also ensure employees get tasks right. For example, your bank or credit union can have a terrific brand jam-packed with consumer interaction, open-ended questions and discovery probes but if the employee deposits the check to the wrong account, it’s all for nothing.
In other words, your brand requires both culture and task be executed well and consistently in order to thrive.
“While we certainly train our staff to work as brand ambassadors, at the end of the day, if tasks are done incorrectly, the brand suffers” shared Travis Flora, Culture and Values Officer with Commonwealth Credit Union (Frankfort, KY; $1.15 billion assets; 92,000 members). “Often, people think of culture as being separate from task. Culture is seen more as things like smiling, looking people in the eye, using their names, etc. Actually, culture includes tasks that go into providing an extraordinary experience. Our team members recognize the importance of excellence in member service when it comes to living the brand and correctly completing tasks. The two go hand-in-hand.”
I had a recent experience in a Chick-fil-A restaurant that illustrates this point. Chick-fil-A is well-known for their emphasis on customer service (and their famous “my pleasure” response to customer statements). On this particular visit, the young lady working the counter did a terrific job living the brand (warm greeting, friendly smile, using the “my pleasure” brand statement). However, when I got my order, there were several things wrong. My drink was incorrect and they didn’t include a particular dipping sauce I requested. She did a great job living the big-picture brand but struggled with the detail-specific task.
These were relatively minor inconveniences and corrected quickly by the same young lady. However, the example does speak to the greater point – for your financial institution’s brand to succeed, staff must recognize and train to the importance of succeeding living the brand and correctly completing the task to the best of their ability.
Note: This article originally ran on Credit Union Insight
Nothing you can make that can’t be made …
No one you can save that can’t be saved …
Nothing you can do but you can learn how to be you in time …
All you need is love …
I must admit up front — All You Need Is Love isn’t of my favorite Beatles tunes. I mostly enjoy their early, youth-euphoric hits right up until about the time of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
The last time I heard this particular song, the refrain above really resonated. When you think about it, there is very little in credit union marketing and advertising that hasn’t already been done. Sure, every once in a while somebody will come up with a new idea (Kasasa, anyone?). But it doesn’t take long for the competition to catch up, modify or downright copy and steal fresh ideas.
That’s where the “… nothing you can do buy you can learn how to be you in time” line comes into play. I doubt John Lennon was thinking directly about branding when he penned these lyrics, but it certainly does apply.
That really is the essence of branding. Not trying to copy the competition; rather – discovering who your credit union is and what your credit union is about during a series of deep-dive brand identity exercises. Rate-matching won’t do it. Running a new car promotion every May just because the bank down the street is doing it won’t work. Even coming up with something brand-new (an unlikely event) won’t work because, as noted above, somebody else will eventually copy you.
No – the answer to successful differentiation for credit unions in today’s hyper- competitive financial services marketplace is simply “learn how to be you in time.” Branding is not an overnight thing. When done correctly, the branding journey is a months-long process with dips, speed bumps, u-turns and a few straightaways. And it really is all about you being you. What sets you apart from the competition (and please don’t say service or people — those are simply not strategy differentiation models any longer). What is your credit union good at doing? What is your credit union not good at doing? What demographic sets of the population do you serve well and, just as importantly, which demographic targets are simply not the right match for your credit union and its finite marketing dollars?
Once you establish your authentic brand, it becomes a question of practice and training for your staff to get on-board. I’m pretty sure the Beatles probably rehearsed All You Need Is Love a few times before laying down the studio track. The same principle applies to your brand and staff. Your credit union can’t invest in creating and launching a brand only to let it fall flat on his face due to lack of staff training. Staff training leads to staff buy-in and loyalty. Without a proper introduction to the brand, including all its subtle nuances and unique characteristics, your staff can hardly be expected to live it in front of each other, let alone in front of your members.
Whether it’s a Beatles classic song or even the Bible in Ecclesiastes 1:9 (“What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”) the message is the same — it’s pretty hard to come up with something strikingly new in credit union marketing and advertising these days. What is new, what is authentic and what is extremely difficult to duplicate is your own unique brand. Getting there is not an easy journey, but the rewards are worth it. When you own your brand, you own space in which you stand. And no one can take that away from you.
Every credit union or bank wants a strong brand. And branding is often an initiative on many strategic plans. However, wanting a strong band and actually having a strong brand are two completely different things.
So how do you know if you have a strong brand? You can give it a “Three E” test. On a scale of one (low) to five (high), grade your financial institution in the following areas:
- Emotion—According to a recent survey from Customer Thermometer, 64% of women and 68% of men have felt an emotional connection with a brand or business. The survey noted, “…it pays to develop an emotional bond.” So how do you do that with a checking account or a loan? You don’t. You need to make sure your brand is not about your products or services, but rather about how the consumer feels when doing business with you. The more emotion you inspire in consumers, the stronger brand you have.
- Engagement—The financial services industry is a relationship-based business. As a recent CU Times article noted, “Is your staff developing personal relationships with members? Do your members know you care?” Your employees need to stop selling and start connecting. If they engage with consumers, the sales will come (in fact, we have found that engagement training is much more effective than traditional sales and service training for our clients). The more you engage with consumers, the stronger brand you have.
- Experience—A great article from The Financial Brand recently spotlighted Solarity Credit Union and how they are competing primarily on experience. The credit union wanted to be the number one experience provider in financial services nationwide and were recently recognized as just that. The credit union developed an entire CX strategy, changed their hiring & training practices, used experience as their guiding strategic principle and created feedback loops among other proactive steps. They just didn’t talk about experience, they created and delivered it. The more you give consumers a differentiated experience, the stronger brand you have.
Giving your credit union or bank the “Three E” test is the easy part. The challenging part is taking the steps necessary to build a successful brand around emotion, engagement and experience.
When you launch a new brand at your bank or credit union, all the glitz and glamour of the kickoff party and initial training feels pretty good (especially if you’re a former marketer like me). I remember the feeling well.
I also well remember that the “new car smell” of the brand didn’t last for long. That’s not to say your brand still isn’t cool, vital and relevant after roll-out. Far from it. However, the real work in branding comes not so much before or during the launch but after the launch.
It’s in the days, weeks, months and years after the launch of a new brand that the real labor comes into play. As a brand leader at your bank or credit union, it is your responsibility to reinforce (and sometimes enforce) brand standards. This means you won’t always be the most popular person at your financial institution. During spot-checks for brand adherence at branches, I was regularly referred to as not-so-nice names by staff. I had to grow a thick skin and so will you.
Working as the brand enforcer, you’ll have to take a stand when it comes to sticking to what the brand represents. If you let little things (homemade marketing collateral, dress code violations, deviations from the consumer engagement plan, etc.) happen, your brand will slowly erode. It’s kind of like the loose string on a sweater we’ve all had. If you don’t snip that string and mend the ravel quickly, it can fall apart. The same principle applies to your brand.
Yes, you’re going to have to correct dress code no-no’s to the brand. Yes, you’re going to have to monitor that homemade brand collateral we all love/loathe so much. Yes, you’re going to have to listen to how your staff interacts with each other and your consumers in order to ensure brand standards are upheld.
Again, this won’t always make you the most popular person in your financial institution neighborhood. And that’s okay. Much like being a mom or dad, the goal of a brand enforcer is really not so much being a friend as it is being a parent/caregiver. And if you care about the brand your bank or credit union has labored to create and launch, you’ll do the right thing by it which sometimes means making unpopular but important decisions to protect it.
Do a quick Google search for banks and credit unions in your hometown. Notice the signs for businesses as you drive to and from work that offer loans. Quickly you’ll notice that your financial institution is not the only choice for consumers in your marketplace.
Differentiation is key. Your bank or credit union must give consumers a reason to choose you over the competition. Otherwise, you risk slipping from a valued brand to just another commodity amongst a cacophony of other unremarkable choices.
When working with banks and credit unions on branding plans, one of the key questions we like to ask goes something like this: “What is the one thing that only your financial institution can provide to consumers?” This is also sometimes referred to as a value proposition.
When answered honestly, it’s is a difficult and soul-searching exercise. I say “honestly” because too many financial institution executives tend to default to the all-to-easy “it’s our people” or “it’s our service” answers. While you probably do have terrific employees and a great selection of services, guess what? Every other financial services provider in your marketplace is saying the same thing. Friendly employees and product/service selection are no longer valid marketplace differentiators. They cannot support a brand, let alone make it different/valuable enough for consumers to choose you.
Think about that for a moment. What is your bank’s or credit union’s “one thing?” What is the singular element that, due to your unique cultural/retail DNA, only you can provide consumers? And how much harder is it to answer once you take the fallback “people and service” option off the table?
If the answer doesn’t come to you immediately, your brand needs fine-tuning. If you, as a leader of your financial institution, can’t quickly describe the one thing you do best, how can you expect your employees to do the same in front of consumers? More importantly, how can you expect consumers to know and, in turn, come to you instead of one of your competitors?
What is your “one thing?” If you don’t know, it’s time to do some serious thinking.
Plenty of banks and credit unions participate in some sort of mystery shop process. However, we’re talking about a different kind of mystery shop — a brand mystery shop that focuses much more on your unique brand culture and how well it is (or is not) lived by your employees in front of every consumer, every day.
Why should your bank or credit union conduct a brand mystery shop as part of a larger marketing audit process?
- To tell you more about your competition. Typically as part of a marketing audit, we mystery shop not only the bank or credit union client but also competitors identified as important in the marketplace. By mystery shopping your competition, you gather invaluable business intelligence regarding their approaches to consumer engagement, which you can then compare and contrast to the results from your own internal mystery shops.
- To see what happens to your brand when you’re not looking. Remember how wild kids in class went when a substitute teacher showed up? And how well-behaved they (hopefully) became when the regular teacher returned the next day? The same sort of dynamic applies here. When a bank or credit union president/VP or manager is in the room, you can expect staff to (typically) more actively and enthusiastically live the brand. However, how they behave (both with each other and with your consumers) when there isn’t a constant management presence is important. A mystery shop will let you know if your staff is living the brand without management oversight.
- To shine light on things you might not notice. Because you spend so many hours a day in your office (or branches) it’s easy, over time, to stop seeing little things that matter in branding. And you must remember — everything matters in branding. A good mystery shop experience with a granular focus can illuminate things that, due to the grind of daily work, you might miss. Examples include outdated marketing collateral, violations of dress code, extended consumer wait times and other unpleasant surprises. A mystery shop might even let you know, as has happened several times during our mystery shops, that the background radio station you pipe into your lobbies also regularly plays commercials from your competition. Not a good thing.
The mystery shop element of a marketing audit will give your bank or credit union many things, both positive and negative, to consider. In order to maintain/improve your brand and safeguard market share, you must be willing to hear both. An honest mystery shop does that for you.